Seattle Labor Unions Then and Now

Activism is in Seattle’s DNA. The city’s worker movement was, and remains, a prominent force in the political scene. But what’s changed and what’s stayed the same?

By Rosin Saez March 26, 2019 Published in the April 2019 issue of Seattle Met

Seattle General Strike of 1919.

It’s April 28, 1919 and Seattle’s then-mayor Ole Hanson had just received a bomb in the mail courtesy of radical New York City anarchists. He wasn’t in the state at the time, and, lucky for one of his staff members, it didn’t detonate. But it was one of the earliest package bombs—and one among many sent to politicians across the U.S.—to make national headlines. Hanson conflated those radicals with labor rights activists, exacerbating capitalist-versus-socialist tensions that live on to this day. The postwar revolution that was in the air spurred change that reverberates throughout Seattle today, with activism as strong now as it was a century ago.

Labor Unions by the Numbers

36 Number of dynamite-laden bombs mailed to U.S. politicians, including Ole Hanson, in 1919.

19.8 Percentage of workers who are union members in Washington state today, third highest rate in the country.

Seattle Labor Over the Years

February 6, 1919: On the heels of WWI's end, industrial workers were uneasy. Wartime had stagnated wages and unions demanded fair due. So, at 10am, the Seattle General Strike began: 65,000 laborers stopped work for five days, a nonviolent act of solidarity that was characterized as radical and un-American.

April 1919: NYC anarchists mail mayor Ole Hanson a package containing a bomb. Hanson, anti-strike and no friend to labor at that time, visited the Seattle Labor Temple preelection with a promise: "I will clean you up (meaning the Reds) lock, stock, and barrel. You do not belong in this country."

Seattle mayor Ole Hanson.

August 1919: Hanson resigns as mayor to pursue grander political aspirations. He would make an unsuccessful run for president in 1920 on a platform of expunging all radicals and socialists. Seattle, by then one of the most unionized cities in the nation, propelled labor movements that would affect politics for years to come.

November 1939: William Boeing of his eponymous aerospace company refused African Americans jobs until black activist and former local communist party leader Hutchen R. Hutchins campaigned against the discriminatory practices. The first African American employees were hired in 1942. Unions still denied them representation.

April 1948: Not a decade later, Boeing machinists launch a five-month strike after the negotiations for seniority protection and a 10-cent-per-hour raise failed. Boeing still wouldn't budge. Two million dollars and 14,000 union defectors later, machinists went back to work defeated. But the loss only strengthened union resolve.

November 1999: The World Trade Organization convened in Seattle for six days, during which international and local labor unions alongside myriad activist groups in the tens of thousands protested the WTO's agenda to put corporate interests above social and environmental concerns. It's notoriously known as the Battle in Seattle.

November 1999: The WTO demonstration grew into one of the largest in Seattle with 35,000 marchers, rallied by the AFL-CIO, who joined crowds downtown. Anarchists destroyed property. Police deployed tear gas. And WTO trade talks ultimately failed, though more a result of dispute inside the Convention Center than out.

1999 WTO demonstration marchers on Pike Street.

August 2002: Named for Washington State Initiative 775, which voters green lighted in 2001 and granted 23,000 home care workers the right to unionize, Service Employees International Union 775—45,000 members strong today—was established and has become arguably the most influential labor organization in local politics.

November 2013: A hard-won victory arrives: The city of SeaTac passes Proposition 1, authorizing a $15 minimum wage policy. Then, in Seattle proper, workers make history in June 2014, when the city council—whose Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant famously ran on the issue—unanimously passed a similar $15 minimum wage plan.

June 2018: After years of back-and-forth negotiations between the University of Washington and academic student employees, who went on strike from May until June to advocate for better wages, childcare, and comprehensive healthcare, UW approved a triumphant labor-endorsed contract for student teachers and researchers.

Present Day: Perhaps the top labor fight today: domestic workers' rights (nannies, cleaners, gardeners, many of whom are immigrants). Representatives like congresswoman Pramila Jayapal are advocating for a federal Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights, like the one passed in Seattle last summer, that would protect wages and more.

A Labor Expert on Unions Today

Seattle Has a Good Track Record

In just the last few years, says Charlotte Garden, associate professor at Seattle University where she teaches labor law, “the success of Fight for 15…really helped light a fuse [in] cities around the country to also raise their minimum wage.”

Come Together, Right Now

Garden says worker activism in the city has surged in areas that both have and haven’t been traditionally unionized: K–12 teachers, graduate assistants, in-home healthcare workers.

Driving Change

“Seattle did something creative—that may yet serve as a model—when it adopted the collective bargaining ordinance [in 2015] that would allow [for-hire] drivers to bargain collectively under local law.”

A Revival

“Seattle is a city with a lot of progressive bona fides, but also a lot of income inequality… Those dynamics are part of the reason organized labor over the last decade has been so vibrant in different industries.”

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